I’ve been trying to assess how to actually gauge how ‘great’ a year is for videogaming considering that videogames are cool and every year there’s way too many great games to play, and I think I’ve come up with a pretty good barometer.
This is the third year for which I have made one of these lists for GameCritics. Each year I compile my locks, compile my maybes, check a comprehensive list of the games released the past year, add some stragglers I may have forgotten, and then make the list. The last two years I remember this being a relatively smooth process, but this year in particular had an abnormally long list of games in the ‘maybe’ category — about ten games fighting for the last couple spots, and it wasn’t because I didn’t feel strongly about them. Quite the opposite in fact, as eventually cutting each one of them felt far more painful then in years past. I suppose that makes 2019 a helluva year for videogames, so let’s see what made the cut.
2019 Game I desperately Want To Play More Of In 2020: Astral Chain
The videogame fall release calendar is, as our almighty editor loves to call it, the silly season, so tackling reviews and playing the latest and greatest releases tends to eat away at all our valuable gaming time. So I had a few days in early September to play Platinum Games latest title, and what little I did play seemed absolutely awesome, and this has been backed up by a multitude of friends who seem to demand I play it in the same way your annoying co-worker keeps wanting you to listen to his favorite band. Then the avalanche hit, and this ingenious hack ‘n slash where players control two characters at once as hyper-anime cops with ghost mech pets got unfortunately pushed to the side.
Nintendo had an absolutely huge release list for the fall season this year. Daemon X Machina, Link’s Awakening, Pokemon Sword & Shield, Ring Fit Adventures, and Luigi’s Mansion 3 all came out within three months of each other. Somebody there should’ve stepped in and delayed this game to January just to give it some dang breathing room. It is worthy of your attention, and I will definitely be making time next year to ensure I give it some too.
2020’s Inevitable Story Of The Year: Our (Supposedly) Great Streaming Future
So 2019 was officially the year where streaming games started its long slog to inevitability with the launch of Google Stadia, and a few weeks after launch, nobody is talking about it. Ignoring the fact that the prices of the games on their marketplace are whack, there’s a monthly subscription on top of having to pay for the games, the reasonable expectation that Google will drop it after a year if it doesn’t take off because that’s what they do, and the fact that I can’t currently use it because I live in China and the idea of designing something that will revolutionize the way we play games when it’s locked out of the biggest gaming market on Earth is patently absurd, there’s another pretty big factor: We as a society are not ready for this yet. Aside from those darn Liberal Coastal Elites, the vast majority of Americans do not have internet capable of handling streaming games in this capacity, and the ones that do are finding out that it slices through data caps like butta. Despite Phil Harrison seeming to have no idea that American cable internet providers are somewhere between used car salesmen and Hitler on the evil scale, he seems to think that ‘ISP’s are smart and they understand that they’re in the business of keeping customers happy.’ Excuse me while I wipe the beer from my laptop that I just spit out.
Despite Stadia’s relatively poor start out the gate, make no bones about it: Streaming games is the future. It’s the future because all the videogame companies want it to be the future, so they will make it happen eventually. It may take upwards of a decade, but it’ll happen, and when it does, say goodbye to game ownership with it. Granted, if one bothers to read a EULA, they will find out that they don’t actually own a damn one of the games they’ve bought, but all of these companies greatly look forward to the day where we just all pay them a monthly subscription to Netflix all our games so the scourge of used discs and piracy will finally be rid of. For those who worry about the continued failure of the industry to properly archive its history, it’s about to get a whole lot worse.
2019’s Turd Of The Year: WWE 2K20
I love videogames. I love pro wrestling. I hate pro wrestling videogames. Not all of them, as I have a soft spot for the goofier wrestling games like Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game and WWE All Stars, but mainline wrestling games all suffer from a fatal flaw: They attempt to turn something that is fake into a hardcore simulation. This in particular I have always found to be a rather confounding concept, and THQ followed by 2K seem to be pretty bad at actually making pro wrestling simulation games. This isn’t helped by the fact that WWE as a whole really doesn’t seem to care about making a quality product on any level, and that has left the WWE 2K series to become exponentially stale and uninteresting as the years have dragged on.
I didn’t play this game, but I saw enough footage online to see that the people that allowed WWE 2K20 to be released in the state that it is should be ashamed of themselves, but they’re clearly not, as it’s also evident that they straight-up don’t give a shit. This year marked the acrimonious departure of long time WWE developer Yuke’s with a clearly bumpy handover to NBA 2K developer Visual Concepts, and the results are, well, not good. Not good at all. The game seems to have actively regressed from a graphical standpoint (which was about the only thing this series had going for it), the actual grappling seems beyond boring, and, man, just go look at some of those glitches on Youtube. It’s embarrassing. 2K games doesn’t care, WWE clearly doesn’t care, and neither should you.
The Be-All, End-All, 100% Objective Only List You Need To Read In Seeking The Top Ten Games Of 2019
Honorable Mention: Death Stranding
I 100% stand by everything I said about Hideo Kojima’s latest fever dream in my review. Death Stranding is a mess. The pacing is terrible, the story is egotistical nonsense, the enemy encounters are both too frequent and uninteresting, and the boss battles are especially bad considering the game was made by the guy who made Metal Gear frickin Solid. With all that said, Death Stranding is also utterly fascinating. I marvel at its audacity and admire the fact that somebody gave a problematic visionary a AAA level budget and then left the man alone to make whatever the hell he wanted. The shared gameplay experience of rebuilding America with people around the world through a connected infrastructure was one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in any game all year. It’s very rare that I can confidently say in the AAA sphere that I’ve never played anything like this game. When Death Stranding is great, it ranks near the top of this list. It’s just too bad that there’s so many 30 minute cutscenes that say nothing between us and its more enjoyable aspects
#10: Trover Saves The Universe
Let’s make this clear: The seven other games Trover Saves The Universe beat out to get my #10 spot are all objectively better games. Rick & Morty co-creator Justin Roiland and his team at Squanch Games made a fairly standard VR action platformer, but OOOOOOH WEEE is this game side-splittingly hilarious, and that’s one of the hardest things to achieve in games. Few games actually try to be funny, and only a few of those actually succeed, so credit should be given when a game is able to make me yuck it up as frequently as this one did. The yucks continued with a steady stream of free post-release DLC that made the day one purchase price a lot easier to swallow. Not the best game of the year, but it could possibly be the most continuously entertaining, which makes Trover Saves The Universe an easy addition.
#9: Bloodstained: Ritual Of The Night
Konami sucks. It’s dead. It’s not coming back. If Metal Gear Survive didn’t convince you, I urge you to play Contra: Rogue Corps and try not to cry. They seem quite content running gyms and bastardizing some of our favorite franchises into slot machines and erotic pachinko cabinets. Everyone who had something to do with making Konami what we remember it as is gone. One of those men is Koji Igarashi, who got so sick of Konami not making Castlevania games anymore that he left and made his own damn Castlevania game. While the wait was long and the sordid tale of its crowdfunded history is even longer, I found myself pleasantly surprised at the quality of Bloodstained: Ritual Of The Night considering the low expectations I had. The presentation is superb, the controls and movement are spot-on, and it perfectly scratches the itch that Konami has been ignoring for years.
#8: Resident Evil 2
Debate the merits of remakes all you wish, but despite the original Resident Evil 2 being revolutionary at the time of its release in 1998, going back now to play that game (along with a litany of other early 3D classics from that era) is tough. Ignoring what it looks like now, the original control scheme and perspective was always going to be a barrier for a lot of people, and this remake modernizes the game in every way, and it does an excellent job of balancing nostalgia with completely new ideas. This is still very much an adventure game where the majority of the game is really about solving puzzles and collecting the means necessary to do so. Furthermore, while Resident Evil games coined the phrase ‘survival horror’, I’ve never really classified the franchise as scary per se. Resident Evil 2: Remake is legitimately scary, mostly due to the incredible addition of the menacing Mr. X, who has gone from a jumpscare in one particular hallway in the original game to a roaming menace that stalks the player at every turn. Being in a tight hallway and hearing those thunderous stomps getting louder and louder knowing there’s no real way out of ones impending doom make this the most tense and foreboding entry in the series yet. Add to that it’s achievements on a technical level, and this is definitely a remake worthy of its pedigree.
On a side note: Mod of the year is the DMX mod that makes ‘X Gon Give It To Ya’ play every time Mr. X shows up. That’s the good shit, right there.
#7: Tetris 99
I don’t play multiplayer games normally, and I definitely don’t play multiplayer shooters often, so I’ve been absent from the Battle Royale train entirely up to this point, and I don’t particularly enjoy being rudely insulted by pre-teens anyway. Nintendo also shares my view that the internet is a scary horrible place, so the randomness and anonymity of playing Tetris 99 is perfectly suited towards my online interacting sensibilities. While it’s not near the top of my personal list for the year, it is at the top when it comes to total time spent played, as I played this game for days working towards beating 98 other Tetris players in a chaotic, inspired re-imagining of the quintessential videogame. The game has been well supported with lots of daily challenges, background skins, and the recent ‘Invictus’ mode provides an extreme challenge for those lucky enough to get that blocky chicken dinner. It’s been my go-to “I’m bored” game for months, and I think i’ll go play some right after this list is finished.
#6: Devil May Cry 5
Ninja Theory’s DmC was a good videogame. I liked it! I liked the level design, I liked the music, I liked fighting a Fox News television broadcast, and I enjoyed it for what it was. It’s very unfortunate that the hardcore Devil May Cry fanbase hates it so much for a multitude of silly reasons. Devil May Cry 5 is exactly what those people wanted, and despite my enjoyment of DmC, that was still a strip club rib eye compared to this filet mignon. If we are talking on a purely mechanics/combat based level, this is the deepest character action game ever made. The amount of complexity and customization for each character is astounding, and there’s three of them this time. Using Nero’s new arm abilities while revving up his sword felt fantastic, and I also loved playing as the Edgelord AF V as he summons demons to do his bidding while he kicks back, reads poetry, and tries to remind himself he’s out of hair conditioner.
But Dante? One could easily make a full length strategy guide explaining Dante’s moveset by itself. It’s patently absurd.
The areas in which a Devil May Cry game needs to hit are all smashed out of the park for sure. The story is a cheesy good time and features a ton of ridiculous cutscenes, the music is on point, it’s a technical marvel from a visual standpoint, and the combat is both supremely designed & immensely gratifying. A few bits of archaic design motifs like bland level design and some downright bad platforming segments keep it from getting any higher on my list, but I can’t imagine anyone looking to beat down some demons walking away unhappy with this one.
#5: Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order
Star Wars as a franchise hasn’t been special for a long time, but since Disney took over and somehow made George Lucas seem restrained in the marketing department, I’ve really lost a lot of the fondness I had for the franchise. The Force Awakens didn’t do much for me, I got more enjoyment from watching the alt-right cry tears into Rian Johnson’s coffee mug than I did actually watching The Last Jedi, and EA in particular has been an astounding disappointment since acquiring the exclusive rights to the Star Wars universe with an endless stream of multiplayer shooters and lootbox controversies. So I was downright shocked by how much I loved Jedi Fallen Order, namely because of how self contained the whole thing is. There’s no day one DLC, no microtransactions, the story is complete and, while definitely leaving the opportunity for more adventures with Cal Kestis and Co., doesn’t really seem like it’s attempting to start some grandiose franchise. It’s the most Un-EA thing EA has released since Brutal Legend.
It tells a great story from a interesting perspective, has all the bombast and spectacle a big budget AAA title should have, and Respawn entertainment successfully took the principles of a Souls game and added accessibility options while still providing a hardcore Souls experience for those who want it. Kudos to them for taking the downright silly argument that multiple difficulty settings in these types of games would ruin them and throwing it into the Sarlacc pit. Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order is the single best Star Wars related thing to be released since the Disney acquisition, Baby Yoda included.
#4: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Two “Souls” games on the list! That is something that I never thought would have happened in January. I had a conversation with my brother, and I started talking about how much I loved Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and he started laughing. “Finally! You get Souls games!”, he said with glee. Well after putting 50 hours into Sekiro then picking up Bloodborne to see if that was true and dropping off of it after about twenty minutes, I can firmly state the answer to that is a emphatic ‘no’. Sekiro is not a Souls game. Ok, sure, it’s hard as nails and there’s bonfires, but this is a stealth action game. From a combat standpoint, it’s got far more in common with something like Ninja Gaiden than it does with Nioh.
Wolf is technically a Samurai, but I really don’t care, because no game has ever made me feel like such a baller ninja. Nimbly shooting around the levels with my grappling hook while stalking my prey and figuring out different ways to attack each encounters was such a thrill, and I love the speed at which this game moves. One can dispose of a room full of enemies in a matter of seconds. The bit about Souls games that I do understand now is the sense of accomplishment from finally beating a particular boss and feeling downright triumphant about it. Despite it’s punishing difficulty, victory always felt within reach. I felt the ability inside of me to learn from past failures and execute at a high level to vanquish every foe in my way, and that balance is what really makes this a special game.
#3: Shenmue III
I still cannot believe this happened. I cannot believe Shenmue III finally came out, that I played it, that I remember playing it, and that I’m now writing about it in past tense for the purposes of an end of the year article. None of this makes any damn sense, and neither does Shenmue III, a deliriously nostalgic time capsule that steadfastly ignored the last twenty years of game design to deliver a game from an alternate reality where the first Shenmue game sold more copies than GTA III and the Dreamcast won the console war. It’s a world I desperately want to live in, and kudos to Yu Suzuki and his team for delivering on the promise of more Shenmue, because that’s exactly what this is. It’s buggy, it’s weird, it’s archaic, most people will probably hate it, it sold like crap so Shenmue IV looks like a pipe-dream, I’m never gonna avenge my father’s death, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that this was the game I got after Kickstarting this game four-and-a-half years ago.
On a side note, how about two Kickstarter games in the top ten that rocked and delivered exactly on what was promised? Never saw that one coming!
I think I’ve nearly run out of nice things to say about Valfaris given how much I slobbered all over it in my review. It’s absolutely one of the best 2D side scrolling action games I have ever played. The team at Steel Mantis had a vision for a heavy metal ode to the 16-bit era, and they delivered in every way imaginable while still having room for innovation like the ingenious resurrection token system. I love the focus of Valfaris. There is zero fat here. If it doesn’t serve the core acts of jumping and killing, it got left on the cutting room floor, leaving a immeasurably tight campaign of mayhem all tied together by Curt Victor Bryant’s masterful soundtrack that fits the headbangin’ mood perfectly.
Mega Man X. Gunstar Heroes. Castlevania III. Valfaris. It’s in that league. Play it immediately.
The Actual #1 Game Of The Year But Was Disqualified Because It’s A Port: Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes Of An Elusive Age Definitive Edition
OK, look, I love the real #1 game on this list. It’s dope. But is it as dope as 2018’s clear choice for the best game of the year in the form of Dragon Quest XI: Echoes Of An Elusive Age? That’s a big ol’ no. So how can it be better than a enhanced version of the game with new quests, newly recorded Japanese voice acting for all the weabs out there, and a full on 2D de-master that makes it into an all-time Super Nintendo JRPG? The answer is that it can’t. I haven’t even played Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes Of An Elusive Age Definitive Edition (whew), but I already know it’s the absolute best game released in 2019, and anyone who missed out on the glorious PS4 version would do well to play the Switch incarnation with its litany of extra happiness. With that said, a port with a smorgasbord of additional goodies is still a port, so I can’t in good conscience make it my 2019 Game Of The Year, which leads us to…
Here’s a good way to tell if a game is designed well: does it warrant using all of the tools given to the player by the developer? A lot of games give us tons of different weapons and abilities, and a lot of times it’s easier just to shoot dudes with an assault rifle. So, in the final missions of Control, as I was flying while using telekinesis to throw pillars at guys while also mindjacking some snipers to help me out while also also using my shield made of rocks to protect me from incoming fire while also also also zipping around the field to evade grenades all at the same damn time, that was when I knew Control was a damn fine game. This all culminates in The Ashtray Maze, an absolutely brilliant level near the end of the game where players really get to unleash their skills all while accompanied by its own prog rock anthem that summarizes the plot of the game up to that point. Find me another developer on planet Earth with an in-house band you’d pay money to see live.
It also handles pacing exceptionally well, scaling the players abilities and powers perfectly to make protagonists Jesse Faden’s ascension to the role of The Director of the Federal Bureau Of Control feel both earned and organic. My favorite part of Control was looking around after a firefight to see just how much shit I have wrecked as a room goes from pristine office space to a demolition zone with desks, filing cabinets, pillars, chairs, paperwork, and potted plants strewn about in a million different pieces. Yes, the console versions struggled with this, but as someone who played it on a high-end PC, the destruction was a glorious sight to behold. This is the killer app for RTX ray tracing technology. It’s not a gimmick anymore.
Finnish developer Remedy has made a name for themselves making weird games, and Control is very much their weirdest game yet. It’s also their best. The centerpiece for this masterpiece is The Oldest House, the brilliantly designed brutalist structure where the game takes place. It’s constantly shifting and changing nature combined with the mundane juxtaposition of it being a rather dreary government office made for one of the more memorable settings in recent memory. The story is intentionally obtuse giving the player not a whole lot of answers, which adds tremendously to the game’s sense of mystery. It is very rare that I ever bother to read supplementary materials or lore building texts in games, and I read every single scrap of half censored paper I found in Control. I found its world and it’s weird cast of characters (accompanied by some truly top notch FMV) completely intoxicating for the entire trip, and I had zero issues choosing it as the best game of the year.